The Witches (1990 film)

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The Witches

The Witches DVD boxart.
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Produced by Jim Henson,
Mark Shivas,
Dusty Symonds
Written by book: Roald Dahl
screenplay: Allan Scott
Starring Anjelica Huston
Mai Zetterling
Jasen Fisher
Rowan Atkinson
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) August 24, 1990 (USA)
Running time 92 minutes
Country UK
Language English
IMDb Allmovie

The Witches is a 1990 film based on the book of the same name by British author, Roald Dahl. It was the 24th and final film produced by Lorimar, and produced by Jim Henson Productions for Warner Bros. and released in the USA on August 24, 1990.


[edit] Plot

The story begins with an old Norwegian woman, named Helga, telling her orphaned grandson, Luke, all about the witches. Witches are a well-connected organization whose goal is child genocide. No motive is given, other than witches abhor children. Helga tutors Luke on how to recognize a witch when he sees one though it is difficult as they are able to disguise themselves to appear normal. Helga tells Luke a story about her childhood friend, Erica, a girl who fell victim to a witch and was never seen again.

Witches are quite bald, according to Helga, and wear wigs to hide their baldness; they also conceal their deformed hands with gloves, and have feet with square ends and hideous stumps where the toes should be. Helga warns Luke to remember these things otherwise he will not survive. Helga tells Luke of "the most evil woman in creation", the Grand High Witch, the leader of all the witches in the world and the most terrifying of all.

Shortly after the death of Luke's parents, Luke and Helga move back home to England where Luke encounters a woman dressed in black, and is horrified to notice she has purple eyes, a trait that witches possess. The woman in black tries to coax Luke from his treehouse with a snake, but when Helga arrives the witch runs off, taking the snake with her.

After Luke's birthday, Helga falls ill and the doctor recommends a holiday by the seaside to recover. They move to a luxurious hotel in Cornwall where an alleged "children's charity" is having their annual meeting. Luke grows bored and wanders around the hotel with his pet mice, William and Mary. He ends up in a wide, deserted ballroom and hides behind a screen to train his mice.

Suddenly the "charity", the "Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children" convention, arrive and Luke is trapped in the ballroom with them. However as he is behind the screen they cannot see him. Helga's thorough education about witches makes Luke quickly realise the truth about the women in the room. The doors are locked before Luke can escape the room. An aristocratic woman who arrived earlier in the hotel, Miss Eva Ernst, takes her place upon the stage and begins to remove her own face. The witches unveil their true selves: removing wigs to reveal bald scalps; their gloves to reveal long, sharp claws; and shoes to reveal revolting, deformed feet. Miss Eva Ernst removes her human face mask to reveal a hideous and hunchbacked body beneath her glamorous exterior. She is the Grand High Witch.

The Grand High Witch is in an ugly mood; she is furious with the Witches of England for failing in their duties to annihilate the children. The Grand High Witch screams and shrieks orders, demanding that all the children of England must be wiped out before she returns within a year. One foolish witch voices her cynicism at such an idea, and the enraged Grand High Witch reduces her to oblivion with a burning magic she shoots from her eyes. The Grand High Witch then orders all her servants to resign from their jobs and buy sweet shops with the counterfeit money she will give them. She then tells them to lace their confectionery with a magic formula she will give them, called Formula 86, which turns whomsoever eats it into a mouse.

The Grand High Witch turns a greedy and obese boy, Bruno Jenkins (lured there by the promise of six chocolate bars), into a mouse as a demonstration of the method. The witches sniff out Luke, who manages to escape to his hotel room, but is captured by the Grand High Witch herself. She then pours an entire bottle of Formula 86—all 500 doses of it—down Luke's throat, resulting in another mouse with a human mind. Bruno and Luke meet in a vent.

Luke and Bruno try to reach Helga's room safely, and Luke manages to steal a bottle of the potion from the Grand High Witch's room and use it against the witches by adding it to the soup reserved for the witches themselves (although part of Luke's tail is cut off with a carving knife by a panicked chef after he has been spotted). One of the hotel cooks is actually a witch, as proven by her purple eyes. She tastes the soup after the soup has been mixed with the formula, and turns into a mouse herself. She tries to warn the other witches of this, but is crushed and killed by them when they see her. A short time later they all start turning into mice.

Initially, panic ensues when mice suddenly appear in the dining room, but soon both hotel staff and guests are attacking and killing the rodents—unknowingly ridding England of its witches. The Grand High Witch however seems to be immune to the effects of the poison and advances menacingly upon Helga, until Bruno bravely leaps upon her and bites her, causing the potion to work. Eva Ernst is transformed into a hideous, deformed mouse and Helga insults her and condemns her for her evil. The Grand High Witch is finally destroyed when Mr. Stringer (who is having an affair with one of the hotel staff until she put the formula on her pressure points and grew mouse fur), the hotel manager, chops her in two with a meat cleaver. After Luke and Helga have returned home, one witch, Miss Irvine (the Grand High Witch's former put-upon assistant, who quit after her boss forbade her from going to dinner with the other witches), comes to Luke and Helga's house that night and uses her magic to restore him to human form, as well as returning his previously lost white mice. Seeing Miss Irvine outside, Luke shouts a reminder to her to also turn Bruno back into a human, to which Miss Irvine gives a reassuring smile before driving away. Her good deed also appears to change her fingers from clawed to human. With England's children now safe from the threat of witches, Luke and Helga begin making plans to return to the United States to destroy the witches there.

[edit] Differences from the book

  • In the book, the hero is never named, and neither is his grandmother. In the movie, the hero's name is Luke and the grandmother is called Helga.
  • The boy in the film is American, whereas in the book he is English (but born to Norwegian parents).
  • In the book, the boy is with his parents in the car during their fatal accident (receiving only a scratch from himself because he wore a seatbelt in the back of the car), whereas they are out for the evening by themselves in the movie.
  • In the book, the hero's grandmother told him tales of five children becoming victims of witches. In the movie, she only told him one, and the tale in question was one that she had experienced personally.
  • In the book, the hero's grandmother is his maternal grandmother, whereas in the film she is his paternal grandmother.
  • In the book, witches' eyes constantly change colour; whereas in the film, witches have purple eyes.
  • In the book, witches wear their gloves to conceal long, thin claws like those of a cat; in the film witches have deformed hands.
  • In the book, the hero finds three children turned into toads at the room of the Grand High Witch. In the film, Luke encounters her pet cat (Liebchen), which his grandmother distracts with a piece of knitting.
  • In the book, the children remained mice. In the end of the movie, Luke and Bruno were returned to their human forms by Miss Irvine (a character created solely for the movie), formerly the assistant of the Grand High Witch. The happy ending was tacked on in the US and UK version of the movie, but not in the rest of the world. This is rumoured to have annoyed Roald Dahl immensely.
  • In the book, the boy's grandmother had pneumonia. In the movie, she had a "mild case" of diabetes.
  • In the book, the Grand High Witch only removes her mask and leaves everything else in place while addressing the other witches. In the movie, she removed her wig, gloves and shoes as well as her mask.
  • At the end of the book, the boy and his grandmother plan to go to Norway (his grandmother's native country) to stop witches there, whereas in the movie they plan to go to the United States to destroy the witches who live in that country using the Grand High Witch's address book.
  • In the book, the Grand High Witch's formula was called "Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse-Maker." In the movie, it was simply called "Formula 86."
  • In the book, children needed one dose and the Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse-Maker worked at 9:00 the following morning (or whatever time the alarm clock was set for during the making of the formula). In the film, Formula 86 needed one dose and it worked two hours later, with the formula working instantly if more than five doses were administered. In the book, it is simply stated that overdoses resulted in a different timing, which a large amount potentially resulting in an instant effect as the alarm clock is disrupted.
  • It is subtly implied that witches can become normal women- or at least take on the appearance of normal women while retaining at least some of their powers- if they become good. Miss Irvine is an example.
  • In the book, and in the movie's dialogue, the boys are transformed into mice; however, all the shots of live creatures show them as rats instead.
  • In the book Bruno is quite unfriendly to the main character and is angry when he realises he is turned into a mouse. In the movie he is more friendly to Luke and takes the news that he is a mouse calmly, although he is still boastful about his family owning three cars, as in the book.
  • In the book, it is speculated- although never expressly confirmed- that Bruno's parents were unable to cope with his transformation and had him drowned; in the film, although his fate is left equally unconfirmed, his parents appear more willing to accept him, with Bruno's father reassuring his mother that Bruno is still their son despite his new appearance.
  • In the book, the name of the hotel is Hotel Magnificent. In the movie, the hotel is named Hotel Excelsior.
  • In the book, the Grand High Witch tells all the witches 65 years old or above to come to Room 454 to get two bottles of the formula. In the movie, she tells all the witches to come in groups of ten to Room 208.
  • In the book, Formula 86, Delay Action Mousemaker was in the Grand High Witch's matress, while in the movie, it was hidden in one of her books.
  • In the movie the Grand High Witch taps a person in a painting and the person disappears. This is rumoured to be one of the children from the book who went missing and was later found in a painting. This is not to be confused from Erika, a girl who disappeared and was often spotted in a painting, who grew up whilst still in the painting.

[edit] Cast

[edit] Miscellany

  • Felicity Dahl has stated that Roald Dahl never again requested someone for a role in his book after the producers of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory denied his request to cast Spike Milligan as the title character. But he was ecstatic when Anjelica Huston was cast as the Grand High Witch, as she had been Dahl's personal favourite for the role.
  • This was the last movie to be personally overseen by Jim Henson, before his death in May 1990.
  • Felicity Dahl states that Roald Dahl hated the happy ending. He apparently stood outside cinemas with a megaphone, telling people not to watch the film. It was the last of Dahl's books to be developed into a film before his death; he died just months after the film was released.
  • The DVD subtitles contain many irregularities. For example:

During the scene in the hall where the witches' meeting takes place, the witch who cries out the notion of poison sweets, the Grand High Witch refers to her as a "brainless bumpkin..." and a "blithering bogvumper". The subtitles incorrectly state that the Grand High Witch says "I just thought...ya blithering va-va-va."

In the dining room when the witches are turning into mice, the Grand High Witch says "My Formula 86"; the subtitles wrongly say "I can't get over the seats."

When the Grand High Witch is turning into a mouse, she says to Helga, "Next time...", but the subtitles read "It's time!".

  • Cher was considered for the role of the Grand High Witch before Anjelica Huston was cast.
  • The whole section in the start of the movie (until they move to the United Kingdom) is shot in Bergen in Norway, and both Erica and Luke's grandmother Helga speak Norwegian in some parts. The street where they live is called Nykirkesmuget. The police officers drive Norwegian police cars with both Norwegian uniforms and license plates.
  • Some of the witches in the convention room scene are actually played by men; they are sat in the rear seats and remain in the background of the movie.
  • Michael Palin appears as an extra in the film, disguised as a witch.
  • The UK showing of this movie cut two scenes out to secure a "PG" rating (some of the gorier shots of Luke turning into a mouse and the Grand High Witch showing her bleeding scalp as she removes her wig).
  • It is hinted that the Grand High Witch and Helga know each other, with the Grand High Witch referring to Helga as 'an old adversary' and Helga informing the Grand High Witch as she transforms that "This time... it's your turn"; with this evidence, it can be assumed that, in unseen events- presumably the same encounter that cost Helga a finger-, the Grand High Witch attempted to eliminate Helga as a child, but failed.
  • Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón are in talks of making a new movie based on the book. Guillermo del Toro says he wishes to stay more loyal to the book than the 1990 film did.
  • Much of the film was shot on location in Cornwall.

[edit] External links

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